Monday, 11 April 2011

Making Characters Sympathetic

Recently in class a student read out a piece introducing a character. They were enjoying sitting in a high backed, winged armchair which protected them in part from the hustle of a crowded staff room. The writing triggered a memory of hiding under the rocking horse when I was little and believing no one could see me.  Immediately I liked the character and, judging from the class reaction, everyone else had had a similar trigger moment too.  

But maybe not, because the writing worked in other ways too. The character was shown as being a little bit vulnerable, and we warm to vulnerability.  We might admire people such as Madonna, but you couldn't really say you warm to her. 

And notice I said a little bit vulnerable.  Too vulnerable, and you've made your character spineless as a jelly fish and about as fun to read. Normal, human levels of vulnerability are what you're going for.  

Additionally, the character had a private, quirky name for the chair.  Quirky is fun, and most people like characters who are fun and have a sense of humour.  I think it was significant that the quirky name was a private one.  We're not that keen on people who self consciously think they are funny and tell you about it eg whacky names for the cat or the car. 

All in all, the author had written a character who, in a few lines, we were intrigued by, and sympathetic to.  Something we should all aspire to.


Jim Murdoch said...

All baby animals are cute. My wife said that a few days ago. It's not true - some baby animals are revolting-looking - but I know where she's coming from - chicks are adorable, chickens not so much - and I think that might be what your student tapped into here. It's a bit like rooting for the underdog I suppose.

Kate Kyle said...

a little vulnerable means also realistic and believable. it creates potential for conflict and all the journey the character has to undertake in order to get wherever she/he is going.

In a nutshell - a little vulnerable goes a long way.

Sarah Duncan said...

We root for underdogs because, I suppose, that's how most of us feel - hey ho, back to the empathy (and the baby animals. Ahhh.)

Actually, perhaps we like baby animals because they're small and cute and vulnerable but are unaware of how small and cute and vulnerable they are and, at the same time, are trying their best to go out into the brave wide world and grow.

Oh, I feel a blog post coming on about vulnerability...